Pistons Roundtable: Dangers of the mediocrity treadmill

Former Portland GM Kevin Pritchard recently warned against getting stuck on the "mediocrity treadmill," where teams are barely good enough to make the playoffs, too good to secure a high draft pick, and therefore, stuck in that position. How much are the Pistons in danger of running in place on the mediocrity treadmill?

Dave Hogg, Associated Press freelancer

I’m not a big believer in the theory of the "mediocrity treadmill", because it is predicated on not being able to get talent without top picks in the lottery. The draft doesn’t work that logically – there
are too many mistakes at the top of the first round and too much value in the last 50 picks. Add in trades and free agency, and there’s no reason that a team should be stuck in some kind of feedback loop.

Look at the 2004 Pistons – the starting lineup was made up of a free agent, three trades and a 22nd pick. The Lakers didn’t get Kobe, Gasol or Odom with lottery picks. The same applies to the Celtics (KG, Rondo, Allen, Shaq) and the Heat – I think you know that one.

So, no, I don’t think that should be a problem for the Pistons. A good GM can build a team without a bunch of top-5 picks.

Dave Pemberton, The Oakland Press

The Pistons are not in danger of running in place. They have been running in place on the mediocrity treadmill the last three seasons, and there is no visible light at the end of the tunnel.

Detroit is not a destination franchise like New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago. No big-time free agent is coming to Detroit anytime soon.

The fastest way for Detroit to turn the corner would be to land a franchise player in the draft. Unfortunately, to do that, you have to lose a ton of games or get lucky. The Pistons have lost their share of games this season, but still have plenty of teams ahead of them in the draft lottery.

Making matters worse is the fact that there are no guarantees in the draft. Turning this thing around is likely going to be a long process.

Jamie Samuelsen, Detroit Free Press

It’s impossible to know what the next two years of Pistons basketball will look like. We’ll see a new owner (hopefully), a new coach (probably) and perhaps a new GM. So what will the direction be? Who knows?

Regardless of who’s in charge, it’s safe to assume that Greg Monroe, Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon and perhaps Rodney Stuckey will be part of the mix. That’s a nice nucleus. But it’s certainly not a nucleus that will challenge in the Eastern Conference or make any noise in the playoffs. But it is just good enough that the Pistons likely won’t slip to the bottom of the standings and contend for a good lottery pick.

To change that fate, the Pistons either need to get really lucky in the draft or get really lucky with a trade. The last franchise-altering trade that the Pistons made was when they dealt Grant Hill for Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins. There’s no Grant Hill on this roster in terms of a trading chip. But to be fair, when that deal went down, nobody forecasted the impact Wallace would have on this franchise over the ensuing decade. Maybe the next GM (if it’s not Joe Dumars) can unearth a deal like that for someone (Gordon?). But that’s hope, not strategy. In terms of strategy, the Pistons are really up against it due to the fat, long term contracts that are already in place on this roster.

Justin Rogers, MLive.com

I always referred to this as the Dominique Wilkins effect. The Hawks had some good seasons when Wilkins was there, but could have really benefited from one more impact player.  Because they were always just good enough to make the playoffs, they could never land that player in the draft.

To answer the question, I don’t the Pistons are good enough to fit Pritchard’s description.  The best chance to turn things around is getting lucky in the lottery, but as Greg Monroe proved last season, you can find quality players at No. 7. 

Mike Payne, Detroit Bad Boys

A month ago on a game preview, I called our position a Lagrangian Point because I am a colossal nerd.  But using Pritchard’s terminology, we’re not in danger of the "mediocrity treadmill", we define it.  We’ve been stuck roughly five games behind the eighth seed and five games ahead of the second best lottery pick since, well, last season.  We’ll be here until a full cleaning of house is completed and we’re able to wipe the roster of its bad contracts (Hamilton, Gordon, Villanueva, Maxiell and Stuckey’s forthcoming over-priced extension).  The real question is how long do we want to be stuck in this treadmill of mediocrity?  Answer: for as long as we continue to support this GM’s vision.

Brian Packey, Detroit Bad Boys

Running in place on the mediocrity treadmill would be a clear improvement over this team, but I think the alert level of that happening is a Spalding orange. I’ve never been the fan to actively root for tanking and a major reason for that is I don’t think it’s necessary to build a contender. The 2004 team was largely built on trades and mid-level draft picks (Darko doesn’t count, obviously), and tanking doesn’t guarantee a top pick (worst record hasn’t picked No. 1 overall since 2004, in fact). I still maintain the Pistons have enough, diverse talent to be a lot better than they’ve shown, and I don’t think they’re too many moves away from getting back into the playoffs on a regular basis again.

Kevin Sawyer, Detroit Bad Boys

The danger is there, sure. If Dumars locks Prince into a long-term contract, and overpays Rodney Stuckey, then the team might as well secure a NordicTrack sponsorship.

Dumars needs to let Prince go, re-sign Stuckey for something in the $6 million-7.5 million range and evaluate the market for Rip’s expiring, with an eye toward 2012-2013. In the interim, he needs to hold tight to the wallet, store up draft picks, and avoid making the Al Harrington type signings that set the treadmill in motion.

The fear I have is that this is the first offseason Joe D. might be feeling insecure in his job. The temptation to lock up Prince and Stuckey, add some middling talent, and hope for the best will be strong. Such are the perverse incentives of NBA management.

Natalie Sitto, Need4Sheed.com

They have been running on the treadmill so long they probably need a new pair of shoes.

Ben Gulker, Pistons by the Numbers

We’ve spent almost three years running on that treadmill already, and without decisive action from Dumars this spring and summer, the Pistons are definitely in danger of being stuck there for some time to come.

As currently constructed, the Pistons are just good enough to minimize their chances at a top pick and just bad enough to miss the playoffs. Given how weak the 2011 draft class projects to be, I don’t think we can expect to find another Greg Monroe in the middle of the lottery.

Pritchard’s point is compounded by the lack of financial flexibility the Pistons may be facing this summer. Two key rotation pieces in Prince and McGrady don’t appear likely to re-sign in Detroit, and
losing both players will certainly hurt. While Prince’s contract coming off the books helps, Dumars has to make two significant decisions about Jerebko and Stuckey; bringing back both could quickly eat up any cap space Prince’s departure would create.

If you can imagine where this team would be this year without Prince and McGrady, you’ll have a pretty clear idea of where we could be next year at this time without some savvy moves from the front office.

Steve Kays, DetroitBasketball.net

I actually referenced the “mediocrity treadmill” in a game preview about a week ago and in the NBA Tonight Podcast The Pistons are very much in danger of getting stuck on it.

They have a talented, albeit flawed roster that isn’t bad enough to get a high lottery pick, but isn’t good enough to be a top playoff team. There’s no joy in winning 32-35 games a year, missing the playoffs and drafting at No. 10 in the lottery. Just ask the Indiana Pacers.

The Pistons need to flat-out rebuild. They should have done it back in 2009. It’s been proven that in the NBA, the teams with the superstars win. And the easiest way to get a superstar, especially for a market like Detroit, is through the lottery.

Jakob Eich, Bynumite Blog

There is some truth to the mediocrity treadmill. You just have to differentiate between having a young roster stuck in mediocrity and a veteran roster stuck in mediocrity. The Bulls are the perfect example. They had been mediocre since 2005 and they make a few smart decisions, get a free-agent to complement their roster and all of a sudden they are title contenders. It does not work for every team, but for some. Look at the pieces you have and add new pieces accordingly.

You can steal players later in the draft too, a lot of very good NBA players were picked late in the draft. Think about Manu Ginobili or Michael Redd, when he was healthy.

Still, I’d rather take two losing seasons and get a great player than get pushed around as the eighth seed every year. That is embarrassing. But that’s just me!

Dan Feldman, PistonPowered

The mediocrity treadmill is probably more avoidable than the supporters of the theory believe.

Sometimes, young teams just need a little extra time to get over the hump. Sometimes, a veteran team instills a winning atmosphere that will require only minimal talent upgrades to reach the next level. Sometimes, a team makes a good draft pick in the mid-first round.

And, of course, some teams regress into the high lottery.

So, there are plenty of ways a team can have a middling record and avoid a similar fate the next season.

But I don’t think the Pistons fit into any of those categories.

Actually, the Pistons aren’t good enough to run on the mediocrity treadmill right now.

But I think they could easily jump on it within a season. The Pistons are probably the only team in the NBA that would improve by shedding a productive rotation player. I don’t mean someone like Keith Bogans (for arguments sake, assuming the many Bulls fans believe hurt their team are correct), and I don’t mean losing a player and his contract would help the team’s salary structure. I mean right now, dropping a player and getting better the next day.

If the Pistons dump Richard Hamilton in the offseason – and I think there’s a good chance they do – even if the trade doesn’t create any cap room, they’ll get better. Shedding Hamilton will alleviate some of the confusion about minutes and roles that have plagued this team. It won’t fix all, or even most, of the Pistons’ problems, but they’ll get marginally better.

Then what?

Are they a young team that needs more time to gel? Nope.

Do they have a winning atmosphere that – OK, no need to even finish that one.

Their best chance to avoid the mediocrity treadmill is nailing this summer’s draft pick, which I think will be their highest pick in the next couple years.

If they don’t add an impact player in this year’s first round, they’ll probably have to do so with a lower pick another year. Not impossible, but just another obstacle in the path for a team that already has plenty of them.

Patrick Hayes, PistonPowered

Unfortunately, I don’t think the Pistons can even be called mediocre right now. They are going to win fewer than 30 games for the second straight year, and that’s not even good enough to sniff the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. To me, that’s not mediocre. Mediocre is a team like the Houston Rockets, a team that is solid enough to contend for the eighth spot in the West, yet will only pick in the low lottery, if at all. The Pistons don’t have those concerns, because with their cap situation, they will be picking in the lottery for, I would wager, at least two more seasons after this one.

"Mediocre" teams like Houston have the means to improve because they’ve collected below-market, high-value, solid players as well as draft picks who could be packaged together and make them players on the trade market should a superstar become available. The Pistons are in no such boat. Because their roster consists of high-priced, underachieving vets, the Pistons would inevitably receive less in return in trades for those players to offset the financial burdens any acquiring team would be taking on. And because most of the team’s young players have either been given up on too soon (Afflalo, Johnson, Carlos Delfino) or not developed as rapidly as the organization has hoped (Rodney Stuckey) or developed at all (Summers, Walter Sharpe), the Pistons cannot afford to dangle the few promising and cheap guys they have in Jerebko, Daye and Monroe because the rest of the roster is so devoid of young, cheap talent.

The odds are against the Pistons falling into the 10-15 win range that gives them the best chance at the lottery, but it’s hard to imagine this roster, which will probably lose McGrady and Tayshaun Prince as free agents at the end of the season, improving to anything more than a 25-30 win club in the next season or two. The Pistons will be a lottery team, and although they may not have the best odds of winning the draft lottery in the ensuing years, the fact that they’ll be in it is the only realistic chance they have of landing the young and affordable talent they need while they figure out to do with their overpriced contracts.

I’d like this roundtable to include you, too. I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s answer to the question in the comments.

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